From its lyric sheet, Bark Your Head Off, Dog looks like a series of poetic segments from a novel. The stories behind each song seem to begin in the middle of a moment, providing so much information and so much feeling, but without the context. With first lines like that of “The Fox in Motion,” the album itself feels like a life in flight: “The youngest/ but that does not/ matter now/ she and her sister laugh/ I was asleep with my mouth/ open the whole drive down.”
Frances Quinlan’s songwriting has the same qualities of an impressionist painting. While the specifics may be unclear, nothing is fake. Faces are blurred, colors pop and blend, and the moment is frozen in time. We may not know the linear correlation of events within these half-stories, but we surely know the feeling evoked within them. Not only that, but we become nostalgic for these feelings, with no sense of our own personal history behind them. Hop Along works a magic on us which conjures up bits of a memory we never even had.
“Sunset on a time
when no words could
be spared. Unknowing
mother rocks soft
in her chair
There must be a limit
This has happened
This will happen
This is happening”
There is a humor to it, as Quinlan seems aware of the magic she’s working on us. “There you have it, the beginning and the end,” she writes in “Somewhere a Judge,” knowing well she has introduced us only to this fleeting moment of the middle. Poking fun at us, she knows she hasn’t told us the story, yet she knows we’ll understand.
In many ways it resembles a scrapbook, filled with torn journal pages and overexposed negatives. The difference lies in the mood. Scrapbooks tend to memorialize happy moments but Quinlan’s stories vary widely in tone. All are reminiscent, but some feel afraid, doomed and wandering, qualities that an old photo album could hardly portray.
“The whole town lined up
outside the tent
what those kids
thought they saw-
do you really want to remember this?”
In keeping with vague narrative aspects, Quinlan refers to many of the characters in the songs as their professional titles. These inspecifics, rather than distancing the audience, create more potential for universal connection -- which explains that unshakeable sense of familiarity. “The writer”, “the general”, “the scientist”, “the professor”, “the captain”: all of them become opportunities for us to fill in the blanks with recognizable faces.
The music fills in the rest of the gaps in context. Bark Your Head Off, Dog carries over the punched-up folk rock Hop Along from Painted Shut and Get Disowned, but the band expands it with symphonic strings in “Prior Things,” synthesizers in “How Simple,” and a vocoder on “Somewhere a Judge.”
Hop Along’s ability to change the mood quickly is one of the most astounding features on the album. “Somewhere a Judge” begins in a spiraling, crooked, Through-the-Looking-Glass universe, but surprisingly jumps into a happy-go-lucky chorus, with a snare drum that rides on and off through the rest of the song. If badly applied, a mood switch like that could ruin the song and confuse the folksy narrative of the album. Quinlan perfects it, though, with lyrics that reinforce these moods completely, allowing for a seamless shift in tone.
“Death, indiscriminate drags off
the newborn buck with the
“Afternoon vanilla sun
crawls away across the lawn
through the phone I pull you
and drag your voice around”
The narrative aspect comes through in ways other than lyrically, as well. The album contains only nine songs, but some of them are longer than average. “Look of Love” lasts for over 6 minutes, nearing the end of the album. The structure is evocative of a traditional literary format: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement. Starting at about 3 minutes and working its way up to 5 and 6, the song lengths are set up as chapters filled with more and more information.
The titles contribute as well, ambiguously introducing the story pertaining to each song. They look like chapter titles-- especially “How You Got Your Limp” and “What the Writer Meant”.
Even the album title is a mechanism to tell part of a story. “Bark Your Head Off, Dog” carries a straightforward, aggressive tone, but could be applied to so many different situations. The dark mood around it combined with folksy subject matter that is so present in each song is quintessentially Hop Along.
By Zoe Evans
Special thanks to guest editor Jack Evans